The Humanist Manifesto III

The following is from the American Humanist Association:

HUMANISM AND ITS ASPIRATIONS

Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933*

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

This pretty much sums up my philosophy and motivation in life, and I think most decent people – including theists, who’d likely take issue with only some nuances concerning faith – more or less lives according to these guidelines. I find that humanism isn’t well-known among most people, at least as far as my own personal experience has taught me. I consider one of my objectives in life is to change that: I want to proliferate and teach humanist values to others in my generation, and perhaps some day even to future generations (I’ve mulled over being a teacher or advocate for sometime).

But I don’t want to limit myself to blog posts and academic writings on the subject – I want to embody. I want to live up to the ideals outlined in this manifesto, and through my actions, conduct, and interactions with others, I hope to show the importance and viability of a humanist outlook on life. As a secular person (I am agnostic, albeit one who tries his best to get along well with religious folks), I’m often at a pains to prove that I have as much moral and ethical fortitude as any one else. I’m tired of hearing this dated canard about non-religious people being amoral, or of regularly confronting stereotypes about “Godless” people being amoral, nihilistic, and cynical.

I want to prove that you don’t need religion to be a good person, let alone a happy one. I’m not any less of a person because I’m faithless. I’m not secular because I’m trying to be counter-cultural, spiteful to the divine, or bitter about life. I’ve tried my best to find faith, and simply cannot sincerely bring myself to do so. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about others, or that I’m some miserable wreck that cannot enjoy life to the fullest. I’m every bit as committed to serving my community, improving this world, and contributing to the well-being of all living things as my religious counterparts – and I’m going to prove it, not only to make a point on behalf of humanism, but simply because I want to, as any upstanding human being would.

Sensible Policies and Reasonable Priorities

Unsurprisingly, big companies are abusing the public’s concern about the economy for their own interests. Every time a new regulation of some sort is proposed, there are always cries from business lobbies – and their colluding political allies – that it will “kill jobs” and “weaken growth.” Business health is important, sure, but so is reigning down on abuses in finance, ensuring public health, protecting the environment and water supply, and maintaining worker safety.

Obviously, there are good regulations and bad ones, and we need to discern between the two.  Any regulatory regime or legislation dealing with the private sector must be crafted cleverly and cautiously, balancing the interests of business with that of the public as a whole. We can’t overdue it either, given that freedom breeds innovation. But there’s more to the well-being and health of a society than happily profiting corporations, and it’s absurd that we can’t even propose these things without either visceral demonizing or vacuous claims of malfeasance.

Besides, what’s good for business isn’t always good for the average American. Many companies have been making record profits throughout this recession, but this hasn’t translated into more jobs and higher wages (indeed, average wages have only grown 2% since the economy first faltered, versus the growth of executive salaries by 24%).   Reports have found that most industries don’t even contribute to domestic job growth or economic well-being: only healthcare, government, retail, and hospitality have contributed anything meaningful with respect to jobs; even then, most jobs in the last two are low-paying, while the public sector is scaling back positions. 

The fact is, our understandable concern about jobs and economic health is presenting a major long-term risk: that we’ll do anything and everything in the name of raw economic prosperity, at the cost of neglecting the many other crucial elements that make up a successful and progressive society. Do we really want to scale back on protections against pollution, water-contamination, and environmental degradation? Do we really believe that canceling the billions of dollars of taxpayer money that go into key corporations will lead to economic ruin, especially when that money could be more beneficially spent on things like job training centers?

Any and all regulations cost something. Business will always take some sort of hit no matter how well-designed a policy or oversight regime is. But we must apply a cost-benefit analysis: at what cost to society will we help the interests of businesses who’s success rarely benefit ourselves? How much are we willing to give up in order to “grow jobs” and “strengthen the economy,” even if neither is guaranteed to happen (indeed, taxes in the US are among the lowest in the world, and in our own history, and that hasn’t satisfied the cost-cutting instincts of modern day companies; heck, the markedly business friendly period under George W. Bush -2001 to 2007 – had some of the lowest job creation since World War II).

Ultimately, we need to stop framing policies in such zero-sum terms. Let’s be honest and admit that most laws and regulations will have some costs but some benefits too; some folks will benefit more than others, or even not at all. But let’s determine the best way to meet at the middle, and look at the bigger picture. Financial regulations might restrict corporate profits, but they might also restrict the next recession too (Canada, New Zealand, and Germany had some tight rules, but they also got away relatively unscathed by the recent global financial crisis).

Sure, environmental regulations can be a pain to abide by, but if it keeps the air and water clean, you make the area a far more attractive place for people to move to and live in; you might even create a whole new industry of eco-tourism (in fact, my state of Florida was historically bi-partisan when it came to being pro-environmental, largely because we realized how crucial our ecosystems were to attracting visitors and thus industries).

The countries that top lists relating to standard of living, economic growth, and high employment – such as the Scandinavian nations, Germany, Canada, and Australia  – are those that have found the proper balance between sensible policies and regulations. Public and private sector come together to devise policies that serve both their respective interests while giving some ground; business and labor leaders work to keep employers profitable without making employees miserable (and the other way around); rigorous means-testing, experimentation, and pragmatic open-mindedness facilitate the introduction of effective policies, as well as ensure their efficiency. None of this yields perfection of course, but it’d certainly help to address what we’re contending with: low job growth, crumbling infrastructure, stagnant public education, and widening income disparity.

But as long as our political and social cultures continue to breed conflict and confrontation: – between workers and bosses, public and private sector, business and government, rich and poor – we’ll never be able to set aside ideological and factional biases and try to hammer out what actually works. Desperation and crisis should breed cooperation and a willingness to do what it takes to address our mutual concerns – but lately, the opposite seems to be happening, and the long-term costs will just get higher and higher.

Ancient Discoveries

I have recently fallen in love with this series on History Channel called Ancient Discoveries. It’s entire premise is to explore and uncover some of the surprisingly advanced technological and scientific accomplishments that existed centuries ago. Interestingly, I stumbled upon it not through surfing Hulu or my television, but during my search for science videos on YouTube.  This has solidified my growing respect for YouTube as a good source of knowledge, provided one knows how to sift through the junk.

The following are some of the ones I’ve seen thus far. Again, it’s very fascinating stuff, and I encourage you all to take a look.

 

 

They’re not too difficult to search for either – just typing “Ancient Discoveries” yielded pretty much every episode of every season. Most of them have been uploaded by a user named BraveManNewWorld2, whose services I’m quite grateful for. I’ve always noted how heartening it is when average people can come together on the medium of the web and exchange useful knowledge to one another. It’s strange to think that instead of consulting the traditional sources of knowledge – libraries, bookstores, documentaries – all I had to do was go on a website and do a seconds-long search. To me, this defines the most crucial aspect of the internet: the ability to find almost anything at anytime, and to contribute what you can to the great pool of data (albeit not all of it being golden of course; as with anything, one must learn to filter out the corrupt and unreliable elements).

But these videos have got me reflecting on an old source of amazement that’s always gripped me: the remarkable capacity for mankind to innovate and progress far above it’s own cynical standards. We humans gives ourselves short thrift, and to be fair it’s not entirely unfair to do so. We have a lot of stains on our history, and most of our existence has been characterized by an overwhelming proportion of humanity being gripped by ignorance, fear, misery, violence, and disease. This seems to especially be the case the father back on our timeline one goes.

But that’s what makes things like these ancient discoveries so encouraging. As a humanist, I strongly value the accomplishments, ingenuity, and raw potential of our race. Through all the corruption and moral decay – in-between our animalistic drive for power and territory – we’ve always had this spark for greater things. Somehow, even in our most primitive intellectual and ethical state, we’ve managed to produce some respectable mark of civilization, higher intelligence, and integrity. We’ve shown that there is potential for us to transcend our collective deficiencies in self-control and reason, if only for a brief moment. It’s remarkable to see such scientific and cultural progress juxtaposed with some of the most militant and despotic societies of the ancient world; if we can persevere even within our most debased societies, than one wonders how much will be unlocked as develop (relatively speaking) freer and more educated civilizations.

It gives me hope that perhaps we may tap into this at a time that we’re progressing more rapidly than ever, while in the face of unprecedented environmental degradation. Our innate curiosity and creativity has survived millenniums of ignorance and violence, so surely we can bring it to bear on our growing social and ecological challenges. Indeed, we don’t have a choice.

But if these videos help me to reflect on the best that humanity has to offer, they also remind me of the very worst. After all, a lot of these ancient developments are being rediscovered precisely because they were neglected or destroyed in the face of war,  oppression, and resurgent ignorance. Imagine how far we would’ve come had it not been for our equally natural proclivity for fear and intolerance. Think of all the libraries that were burned, the sages and inventors that were killed, and the ancient centers of learning that were shut down by autocrats fearful of freethinking. Where would we be today, had the better part of our nature persevered and been allowed to continue?

It will never cease to fascinate me how we can simultaneously be commit horrible acts of destruction and stupidity alongside advancements of reason and creation. We’ve struggled with this paradox for our entire existence. Though it’s asking a lot, I can only hope that we learn from our long and ambitious history just what can potentially lie ahead. As always, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Father’s Day

I don’t generally care much for these kind of holidays. It’s not that I disagree with their message per say (though in some cases I do, but that’s for another post). Indeed, I still celebrate most of them either out of obligation or simply for fun. I just feel that when it comes to things like Father’s Day, the message is one that should be kept in mind at all times, not just for one particular 24-hour period (Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that all people who celebrate these sorts of holidays are guilty of neglecting things except on the days slated to honor them).

I’m always doing my best to honor my parents as much as possible, and how could I not? It’s no exaggeration to say that they give me a reason to be grateful for them everyday: the way they always cook for my siblings and I, providing us with healthy and homemade meals in a time where such things are increasingly rare due to their inconvenience; the way they take time to help us sort out our finances; the way they always ask us if we need anything whenever they run errands, never taking issue with the cost or convenience of getting what we ask for (to a reasonable limit of course).

My dad is one of the strongest and savviest men I know. While I’ve always looked up to him for this, I figured I’d commemorate his designated day by reflecting on my admiration for him. He’s the quintessential rugged manly man who nonetheless has a softer side, enjoying cooking, oldies music, and playing around with my siblings and I as much as he likes guns, cars, and yard work. He’s built much of our furnishings, repair numerous leaks and electrical problems, and can do everything from sewing torn clothes to almost literally building a car from scratch. He has a taste for cigars, whiskey, and all sorts of eclectic dishes (bone marrow and goat stomach for example), yet indulges in decadent sweets and refined organic food. He’s physically strong and well-built, even for a man in his mid-60s, yet had the innate skill to run half-a-dozen different small businesses and serve as an executive supervisor in a casino, all that despite coming to the US with almost no money and little support.

His entire life has been devoted to giving my family the best possible lives we could’ve ever dream of, the kind of life he was denied. If it weren’t for my dad’s tireless work, even through the numerous financial struggles that we endured throughout my life (and as I write this), we would’ve never had the financial stability that allowed me to focus on school, gain my scholarship, and go on to college. I would’ve never had the free time to devote to such luxuries as lounging around with friends or indulging in various pleasantries. My life would never have been as comfortable and relatively stress free as it turned out to be, all at the cost of my dad’s own well-being.

But he was more than my financial backer. Like any good father, he was my guide and mentor. From an early age I learned about chivalry, etiquette, and family values. He taught me the value of the money, the importance of hard work, and how crucial it was for me to stick to school and get an education. Perhaps most importantly, he never patronized me: I was allowed to grow and develop on my own, and he never imposed any sort of dogma or unreasonable restrictions. I was able to mature and wise-up largely on my own, albeit with his usual guidance and advice.

Basically, my dad is everything I want to aspire to. He’s a complex person with a wide-range of talents, qualities, and knowledge. He’s experienced so much in his life, and has become wiser than most his age. He can balance well between gentleness and gruffness or restraint and forcefulness. His capacity for being a family man, hard worker, and self-made businessman leaves me in awe as well as envy: I often wonder if I’ll ever amount to the kind of person my dad is. Will I be as strong, physically and mentally? Will I have the same unstoppable will and work-ethic? Will I have such a diverse set of skills with which to raise a family and eventually pass on?

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve learned to appreciate all these things well enough to keep learning from him. I obviously don’t know what kind of father I’ll ever be, or if I’ll ever come close to my dad’s greatness. All I know is that if I can have the same impact on my children as he’s had on me, I can rest easy and have him to thank for that.

The Information Age

A philosopher is a lover of wisdom, not of knowledge, which for all its great uses ultimately suffers from the crippling effect of ephemerality. All knowledge is transiently linked to the world around it and subject to change as the world changes, whereas wisdom, true wisdom, is eternally immutable. To be philosophical one must love wisdom for its own sake, accept its permanent validity and yet its perpetual irrelevance. It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history and yet never to shape it.

-Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information

Unknown to many of us, the era we live in is known as the Information age, and it began only 29 years ago. As it denotes, this is a period characterized by the sheer force and propagation of knowledge and we’re living only in its infancy, many of us having grown up with

We live in a world of unparalleled knowledge and research, where every day –  if not every hour at times – some knew discovery is made or a new project is being undertaken. More unprecedented, however, is the great diffusion of knowledge: for the first time in history, nearly all the sum of the world’s knowledge thus far is out there and available for many to absorb. The internet undoubtedly bears a huge responsibility for this, with its invention being the marker with which the information age began (in fact that was the original idea of the Worldwide Web as proposed by Sir Thomas Berners Lee, its inventor, in the 1990s). Suddenly, we can type anything that comes to mind in a myriad of search and info sites and get a list (if not pages) of information, as well as reference points. More books are published every day and more periodicals and journals are established every few months. Heck, speaking by experience, 5 years ago, when I first started majoring in International Relations and Political Science, there were only about  3 major magazines on the subject: now I’ve seen about 12 at my local Barns and Nobles (much to my dismay, I can only afford to subscribe to so many :P). Universities and libraries are popping up everywhere, especially in many rising nations and now even cell phones and MP3 players can access repositories of knowledge.

Most important of all, the unprecedented link that we’ve established—our capacity to communicate with one another across borders and vast distances—has bred an exchange of ideas and knowledge that was scarcely imagined at any point in human history. This constant trade of knowledge has become a global market place where theories, political ideas, philosophies, cures, recipes, health diets, lifestyles, religion, and everything we can humanly process is just flowing all around us, often stacking with one another and breeding even newer concepts that are further passed along. We’ve created a melting pot of information that more and more of the world (as communications technology spreads) is both adding to and taking a piece of. The formation of multination corporations, international research teams, inter-university partnerships, and more globalized media are the symptoms of a world increasingly more connected in its pursuit—and its access to-knowledge.  Some even speak of this knowledge bringing down oppression and dictatorships, as more people (especially the Chinese, a good case-study of this) become exposed to ideas that, try as they might, their repressive governments cannot totally stifle in a world of quickly developing and improving communications. Revolutions can be guided by mass knowledge of injustice and fueled by ideas like liberty than by sheer angst and poverty (where were the original catalyst historically).

Granted, with all those ‘positive’ ingredients come the toxic ones, the ones that breed war, international terrorist networks, and nationalism. Evil forces use this free flow to propagate their own agenda, to recruit people into their nefarious schemes and even exploit them. Regimes censor and control the media in their nations, and however difficult their task, often succeed (though this is debated, especially in its permanence). Hated, fear, and angst can flow as freely as their positive counterparts, and can often be just as tempting. In a more technical sense, hackers and other digital dissidents can infiltrate this system and corrupt and destroy it, exploiting our increasing dependence on communications technology to transmit everything from billions of dollars to pornography.

We don’t realize it, but in such a world as described, anyone of us has the potential to be a scholar and intellectual, to know whatever we want should we choose to open our minds to it. So many of us ‘average’ people make intellectual quips, judge human nature, and question existence and the metaphysical, when such musings were, for the bulk of human history, reserved for a negligible percentage of the world’s population. While ignorance and stupidity, of course, remain, as they always will, they are nowhere near the levels they once were, especially as every generation becomes wiser and more informed than the preceding. Who knows what are children and grandchildren will know in their lifetimes?

To think that for much of human history, knowledge and even literacy for that matter, was the domain of a paltry few elites and aristocrats. Now it has become the domain of the common man and woman, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Universities have become less for the privileged and more for the average person. Public universities, such as my own FIU, have boomed in both their influence and their admissions. The gap between high-culture and low-culture have been closing in fast, as everyone from skinheads to sports junkies embrace art and human activism, while WASPS and old-money elites enjoy video games and reality television. With this free flow of data comes the exposure to different outlooks and interests never before known and the elimination of subcultures and, to some extent, class (after all, class divisions are as much dependent upon knowledge and educational attainment as they are to money and power).

Knowledge has become so widespread and available that we scarcely see it as anything special. Education and data have been taken for granted by their sheer availability and widespread acceptance as a human given.  We mustn’t squander these opportunities people! Indeed, many of us aren’t, as our ambitions have risen with our knowledge: more and more people want to ‘save the world’ and do their part. Causes against poverty and injustice become a given to nearly all college students, at least nominally. With knowledge comes the desire to apply that knowledge and the understanding of the problems and conditions of the world that must be addressed.

We are approaching, if not having already arrived, at the precipice of human history. The world is dying and on the verge of collapse in the face of environmental degradation, over consumption, international discord, and our usual petty conflicts. Never have we come so close to destruction (although that’s debatable) and never have we had the means, the information, to do something about it.

All this knowledge can be overwhelming and disparaging though. Nothing is ever true for long it seems, and there is always a new study or discovery that disproves something we’d just learned about, or worst still, always thought we knew was true. Age-old conventions we grew up with and lived by are broken and doubted. Everything becomes so impermanent or ambiguous and nothing seems to have a clear cut answer any more (and if it does, it gets challenged or disproven at some point). This making solving are all individual and national problems, if not the myriad global problems we face as a whole, all the more daunting and seemingly impossible. We can’t find a consensus to deal with this economic crisis, with terrorism, with global warming (which some people can’t accept the existence of), with poverty, with finding love, with healthcare…and so on and so forth. We even start to question existence itself and God and the human condition. And being bombarded with all this knowledge everywhere we go doesn’t help: we feel overwhelmed, unable to take it all in, or to make up our minds. The free flow of knowledge becomes chaotic and more reminiscent of a storm. Ironically we face the increasingly cliché notion that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and suddenly we feel lost and unsure in a world we don’t really seem to understand anymore.

We think the world is more violent and troubled than it really is, if only because we know what is going on everywhere all the time. We’re exposed to so many images and reports of war, human rights abuses, violence, rape, disaster, and death that we feel it’s all coming to an end, when we’re actually LESS violent and worse off than every before. Its not that the world is worse than ever, but merely that we’re more informed than ever.

All of this confusion can breed nihilism and a sense of despair and powerlessness, as we are too uncertain—or too exposed to negative ideas that also flow around us—to act. We start asking what’s the point, why bother knowing? Why live in truth and knowledge when ignorance is bliss and that bliss is really all that should matter? Why believe in this when there is that? Why trust or believe in anything anymore, period? Paradoxically, it is through asking questions that we get answers, and yet is through getting answers that we ask questions.

Ah, who knows! Just keep your minds open, however daunting that may be. I don’t really know what else to say but that.

A Tourist in My Own Town

Earlier today I did a rare thing: leave my comfortable, familiar, and relatively insulated suburban neighborhood and venture dozens of miles north-east to the downtown area of my home city, Miami. I had a job interview to go to, and so I had no choice but to set aside my cruelly ironic anxieties about traveling into the unknown and boldly go where I sadly do go often (the interview in question, if anyone is wondering, was for Public Allies, a government-subsidized non-profit that in turn contracts you out to other non-profits to work for; more on that in a future post).

It’s not that I’ve never been downtown before. I’ve gone there quite often, among other places in and out of the local area. It’s just that I rarely take it upon myself to travel on my own accord. My trips to most places outside my exurban comfort zone are generally with friends and family, and usually to the same familiar places: the beach, a cultural art center or two, or some sort of special event. I can travel quite a bit when I’m with others, but rarely do so on my own without good reason. The potential for getting a reputable, well-paying job within my career field did the trick.

Given the distance from my home, I decided to take public transportation, which is a rather novel way to go about traveling in an urban sprawl like Miami (PT is rarely as efficiently, or even utilized much, as in denser cities). Needless to say, it was both an enlightening and sobering experience, for a lot of reasons. Traveling along the metro wasn’t all that eventful or anything, although it gave me an appreciation for how difficult it is to be unable to rely on yourself to get around town. Cars above all represent independence, and in the hustile and bustle of city life – especially in hyper-individalistic America – having to trek vis-a-vist often unreliable and inefficient public transportation certainly isn’t easy; I’ve known people that subsequrntly take two or three hours to get to their destination.

On the other hand, I’m sure it can be quite a usedul learning experience, since one can learn streets and avenues better, and know their way around town. It can require as much savvy and independence as driving yourself too, since you’ve got to get your navigational and time management skills right too. Juggling differnet bus routes, their times, and their intervals under a tight work or school schedule is something I’ve rarely had to do.

In any case, what affected me most in my trip was how relatively foreign my own city felt to me. Of course, I recognized plenty of landmarks and places of interests, as well as a few street names and bridges. But for the most part, I really didn’t know much about where I was or where I was going. I saw theatres, parks, eateries, and entire neighborhoods that I had never heard of or seen before, and found out about a lot of electic and interesting establishments that I wish to revisit. Most sobering of all, I saw a lot of poverty and degradation – empty lots, homeless people, dilapidated buildings, grimy streets, and low-income housing. Concurrently, I also bore witness to progress, of a sorts: new high rises, cultural centers, paved roads, and metrorail expansions. These two very stark aspects of my city were often literally right next to each other, reinforcing the wide and shocking gap of wealth and fortune in Miami (which, by the way, is often simaltaneously rated the richest and poorest urban area in the country, depending on the source).

At the end of it all, I felt a mix of pride and sadness. I was reminded of what an interesting, cosmopolitan, cultured place I live, and of all the growth and dynamism that was chugging through despite the recession. But I was also reminded of the severe social and economic inequities of my hometown, where homeless people sleep in overgrown lots across the street from opulent high-rises and hotels; where artsty art centers stand aside decaying old projects. I’ve seen all these images of poverty before, even firsthand, but their effect would often wear off shortly after, what with me regularly surrounded by middle-class anemeties and vibrant suburbia. It’s remarkable, maybe even a little shameful, to think that I can be so insulated from the human misery that coexists with my comfort – enclaves of prosperity among struggling ghettos.

I was a tourist in my own city. I mean look at me, talkng about experiencing public transportation and recalling my encounter with social stratification as if I was some aristocrat taking a day to live among the peasants. I feel pretentious, out of touch, and self-indulgent; reading so much about so many things, yet rarely experiencing any of it myself. Worst of all, I feel like I’m perpetuating the cliche of the cloistered college graduate who’s too high-cultured and aloof to understand the real world outside his books and classroom. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, but I can’t help but entertain the thought.

But ultimately, I feel more illuminated than anything. In spite of all my talk about exploring other cultures and countries, and my dream of traveling the world (my anxieties notwithstanding), it never occurred to me just how little I know about the world immediately around me. I feel like there is so much to do and explore now, so much to appreciate about the place I live. It’d also be far easier and more feasible than going abroad too. I’m inspired to travel more on my own now, and to do so with greater spontaneity and sense of adventure (i.e. it shouldn’t take something like a job interview to coax me outside of my shell).

Maybe I’m coming away with a lot more from this little trip than is meritable,  but I think no bad thing could come form realizing just how much life and experience exists all around us. We often go about our lives following the same routines and driven by the same basic needs. Rarely do we stop to look around and appreciate what a complex and dynamic society we live in – the sights, sounds, tastes, people, events, and experiences. In a way I guess we’re all tourists somewhere and somehow, if we dare take the opportunity.

Internet Access: A Human Right?

A report by the United Nations has recently made an interesting, if not eyebrow raising, declaration: that  internet access is a human right equal to any other, such as freedom of conscience or freedom of expression. Needless to say, the public has responded with a collective mix of amusement, surprise, and even dismissiveness. As far as human rights go, a right to internet access hardly seems as necessary or by any means as intrinsic as right from persecution or oppression, or a right to an education. Most detractors aren’t necessarily opposed to this decision (as far as I can tell anyway), but merely cynical about enshrining something like internet access on the same level of far more arguably crucial rights.

Indeed, that position is understandable. With immense and sadly familiar humanitarian crises continuing to plague much of the world’s growing population, it’s seem almost tactless to pontificate about supporting one’s right to access the internet or do so without political persecution (the specific details of the report can be found here, in an original PDF transcription courtesy of the LA Times). Since the links provided further elaborate on the UN’s position, I won’t get into much more detail with regard to the specifics of it’s assertion.

I will say, however, that I broadly endorse this statement. Obviously, I agree with critics that this is far from equal in weight or support to providing food, shelter, and medical treatment to the billions who need it. Freedom of internet access is nowhere near as crucial as freedom of assembly, expression, and political representation (although it should go without saying that freer internet access would no doubt correlate with a freer society and political culture).

But the report, as far as I’ve read it, isn’t listing priorities – there’s no claim that internet access should be promoted ahead of any of the things listed above or taken as a given of human rights. Not only would that be inhumane, but patently absurd (good luck promoting internet access while people are worried about basic survival against poverty or state prosecution). It simply promotes what is already being increasingly recognized by much of the public: that the internet is quickly gaining prominence not only as a medium for free – if not freest – expression, but as an instrument for democracy, social change, education, and innovation. The ongoing Arab Spring was in part facilitated by the savvy use of social media and web, which connected protesters to each other and the outside world, and allowed them coordinate their civil disobedience.

Granted, the internet’s role in the Mideast uprisings, as well as it’s general usefulness with respect to general human development, is often overstated and oversold. But there is no denying that as internet access becomes more ubiquitous, and internet culture develops into something more sophisticated and substantive, it will clearly play a significant role in our everyday lives (just as the printing press, radio, and television all came to bring profound changes to our politics, society, culture, and even economy). Like these mediums before it, the internet will endure various ethical, legal, social, and psychological assessments and debates. We in the West consider access to these other media technologies  as almost a given, and that’s increasingly becoming the case with the web (indeed, Finland has already lead the way in making internet access a “legal right”). I think this report shows laudable foresight, and is just the beginning of a trend, and we’ll be seeing more attempts at defining our relationship with a technology that’s progressed far faster than our capacity to understand it.

The Problem of Power

Lately, Americans seem very torn about the role of the United States in the world. While isolationism has gained much public support, we still seem to pine for a time of unilateralism, diplomatic aggression, and taking charge in the world. Witness the contradictory response to our Libyan intervention: the public was skeptical and largely opposed to the endeavor from the start, viewing it cynically – and understandably – as yet another potential quagmire in the Middle-East. Yet when the Obama administration passed responsibility over to NATO (namely the UK and France) there was a sense that we neutered ourselves, and that our behavior was unbecoming of the world’s sole superpower.

Ultimately, I think our society has found itself in a familiar and quite common conundrum: we want to feel the pride and prestige of being on top of the world without dealing with the burdens and consequences that such a role inevitably entails. Power is a wonderful feeling, whether one wields it personally or experiences it collectively as part of a prominent society. Power gives us purpose, security, stability, and identity. Psychologically, it makes us feel good for reasons we cannot yet fully explains.

Yet power brings a lot of problems, not the least of which being an obsession with staying powerful. Being powerful is an exercise in being insecure, and the more power one has, the more worried one becomes about losing such power. Individuals and societies alike can respond to this by either obsessively (and often destructively) trying to maintain and expand power, or by accepting the inevitability of it’s expiration and trying to ease into a peaceful, managed decline.

Furthermore, having power means having more responsibility. You have so much potential to do things that you find yourself trying to tackle too many objectives at once. You become a hostage to the ambitions that power allows you to fulfill, and despite the resentment and envy of your less powerful peers, you’re expected – begrudgingly or otherwise – to continue to respond to any crises or obstacle that emerges, even if it isn’t necessarily your own.

I know I’ve digressed into a more individualized and philosophical take on the problem of power, but I think everything I’ve stated applies as much to a collective entity as it does to a single one. The United States is a powerful country, and arguably the most powerful in human history. It wields unparalleled influence not only diplomatically, economically, and militarily, but culturally, ideologically, and socially as well. Simply consider the ubiquity of American goods, media, values, and even cultural memes across even the most isolated parts of the world. But all this influence has taken it’s toll on our society, and led to consequences we’ve all come to know to well.

We’re entrenched in too many parts of the world, with a global military and intelligence apparatus that is becoming increasingly too expensive to maintain in the face of our vast fiscal crisis. We’re gripped by so many domestic concerns that the world has simply become too big and complex to continue to attract our attention and investment, much less that of our public officials (who we’d prefer, not unreasonably, to focus on problems at home). Isolationism and protectionism has always been a feature of American society and political culture, yet it becomes far more prominent in moment of social anxiety and low public-confidence. Consider our behavior in the world following the Great Depression, and compare it to our presence in the world following our high moment at the end of World War II; a comparison between American retraction and reflection following the Vietnam War, and it’s resurgence and confidence after the First Gulf War provides a similar, if not understated, example.

Despite all this, we’ve often maintained an internationalist and even outright jingoistic streak as well. America history is largely a timeline of expansion and some would argue quasi-imperialism (especially following the development of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted our interests and influence throughout the entire Western Hemisphere). The ideas of Manifest Destiny and Exceptionalism are as ingrained into American culture, history, and psyche as the values of liberty and freedom which we often purport to promote and export throughout the world. We certainly have good reason to hold our ideals and accomplishments as a polity in high regard, and to desire that others share in their fruits. But unfortunately, this has often given way to either well-intentioned but foolish moralizing missions, or cynical manipulations of higher ideals for the sake of strategic and economic gain (often times, it’s a bit of both).

Ultimately, this is the paradox and problem of power. We want to project it insofar as it suits our interests (be they idealistic or self-interested) but quickly become cynical and impatient at the expense and sacrifice required. We want to keep the world safe and friendly to our interests, yet grow tired of being “the world’s policeman.” We want the world to go our way, to respect our ideals, our sovereignty, and our wishes, yet we’re unwilling to be assertive about it any longer, nor to deal with the consequences – some would say the ingratitude – of our commitment to shaping the global economic and diplomatic paradigm.

The fact is, Americans are understandably tired and anxious about the repercussions of being a superpower, yet don’t want to let go of the prestige and pride of it. We’ve always been an important and influential country, and a lot of people have a hard time seeing us go into peaceful decline the likes of Europe. But unless we’re willing to sort through all the contradictions, difficulties, and sacrifices that befall powerful nations – and powerful people too for that matter – we’ll always find ourselves unsatisfactorily gripped by the problem and paradox of power.

The way I see it, power is a naturally finite thing, and it’s expiration is a matter of when not if. We need to come to grips with this inevitability, and given our unique position to look back at the long history of declining great powers and learn from, and given our advantageous position in still remaining quite influential, we should continue this dialogue and make the most of this rare period of reflection.